When fans look at the players on the floor tonight, only one will matter.
Yes, tonight is all about Dwight Howard. Fans will finally get to see the All Star center who jilted them in a most embarrasing and mismanaged fashion. It has left an adoring fan base with a stomach full of hatred ready to be hurled out onto the court once the ball tips and before.
Howard has been preparing himself mentally for it and Magic fans have had March 12 circled on their calendars since the schedule came out.
However, when you look at the roster that will actually take the floor tonight, only one player actually played with Dwight Howard.
Hedo Turkoglu is suspended. Glen Davis is injured. J.J. Redick is traded.
Only Jameer Nelson actually played with Howard and he already dedicated the win in Los Angeles to Magic fans. That was back when the team was very much playing for something and in the thick of the early Eastern Conference playoff race. Now, the Magic are not playing for much. A 18-46 record takes a lot out of a team.
No, now the team is about improving every day. And so tonight's game offers another learning experience. One that is going to be quite unique.
The atmosphere in Amway Center is going to be raucous.
I was too young to remember Shaquille O'Neal's return vividly enough, but Tracy McGrady's first game back in Orlando clearly. The venom in the building directed at McGrady was palpable. Every time he touched the ball, a chorus of boos cascaded down toward the court. It was not quite a Playoff atmosphere — there seems to be more a need to cheer in those games — but it was pretty close.
That game, like tonight's game, was about letting out pent-up emotions. Tonight's game will be that. And Nick Anderson added tonight will probably be worse than Shaq's return.
However, few people on this team were part of that whole Dwight-mare. So the raucous crowd may not carry emotion with it for many of the players. At least not a deep-seated emotion that comes from being jilted and going through the whole ordeal of last season. There is some distance on the team at least.
That does not mean tonight cannot be a learning experience.
You may have noticed that I have a Playoff Chase counter on the left side of the site. As things stand now, the Magic are five losses or five Bucks wins from being officially eliminated from the postseason. With about 20 games remaining, it is pretty safe to say Orlando will miss the Playoffs for the first time since 2006.
So gaining experience in lound and crazy environments, particularly at home, are very key learning experiences for the young players on the roster since they will not get to see the Playoffs this year.
"I think the environment is always fun to compete in general," Arron Afflalo said after Sunday's win over the 76ers. "Whatever outside story creates that environment, basketball players love that. That’s what you play for. That’s what the Playoffs are essentially built around. If you can get that type of atmosphere or a different type of environment in a regular season game, it would be fun to play in.
"It will be nice. We’ll see how [the young players] react."
Indeed, several players are expecting a Playoff-like atmosphere tonight because of the story surrounding Howard. It will be unlike anything this team has experienced to this point.
Yes, the Magic have sold out seven games prior to this one. But none appear to have the buzz that this one is beginning to engender and the atmosphere of pure venom that is likely to permeate the Amway Center. The Dec. 31 game against the Heat might be the closest that has come to a Playoff atmosphere so far.
Orlando has been preparing for this game for a long time.
Players though, because they do not have that connection to Howard, likely are thinking of this as just another game. There is a task ahead of them and a desire to win still in them. They have shown plenty of that fight in the past few weeks. And Afflalo said the goal is still to go 2-0 against the Lakers this year.
Afflalo knows the Lakers are fighting for their Playoff lives so they will come in with an intense focus the Magic will ahve to answer. Likely the crowd will help intensify the urgency and give the team energy.
Still, there is no escaping the Dwight Howard story and everything that comes with it.
We will see what this experience does to the young players.